Alberta school bus driver shortage 'worst I have ever seen,' bus contractors' association president says

Mark Critch, president of the Alberta School Bus Contractors' Association says the school bus driver shortage is the worst he has ever seen it.  (David Bell/CBC - image credit)
Mark Critch, president of the Alberta School Bus Contractors' Association says the school bus driver shortage is the worst he has ever seen it. (David Bell/CBC - image credit)

Getting her daughter to and from school has been difficult for Danielle Heppell.

The Edmonton mom says a bus driver shortage in the city often left her scrambling to get her child safely home each school day.

The unreliable busing system was a particular challenge for her seven-year-old daughter, Cali, who has autism.

She said her daughter often had to wait two hours after school for her specialized school bus home from Princeton School, a public school in northeast Edmonton with a specialized program for children with autism.

"I'm a working mom. I can't be there to pick her up after school, but she'd be at the school until 5 p.m. waiting for the bus," Heppell said.

The situation was so untenable that she decided to pull her daughter from the school, and transfer her to another school within walking distance of the family's home.

Her daughter's new school does not have specialized autism programming, Heppell said.

"Breaking routine constantly is not only a headache for me, but it's a headache for the teachers, the school, the bus driver, because her whole routine is thrown out, everything she's used to is now completely changed," she said.

In an emailed statement to CBC, Veronica Jubinville, spokesperson for Edmonton Public Schools said school bus ridership is back to pre-pandemic levels but the majority of delays this year have been less than an hour.

"Route delays occur for a variety of reasons and average delay times for students vary from day to day, depending on the route and other contributing factors like unexpected driver absence due to illness," Jubinville's statement read.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, education and transportation advocates have been urging the province to act on the dire shortage of school bus drivers in communities across Alberta.

The province-wide driver shortage persists, said Mark Critch, president of the Alberta School Bus Contractors' Association.

As the school year enters its second month, many yellow school bus routes remain driverless, he said.

Challenges around driver recruitment have been exacerbated by inflation, which is pushing up the cost of operation, he said.

Until wages and hours improve the situation will remain dire, he said.

"This is the worst I have ever seen," Critch said. 

"It's not terribly new to have a shortage of school bus drivers. But right now we're seeing one of the worst years that I recall."

Critch said students with special needs have been among the hardest hit by the shortage.

"The reality of the situation is if the specially-equipped bus doesn't show up very rarely can they find alternative transportation and it's a shame they fall through the cracks," Critch said.

Earlier this year, the province increased the student transportation budget by $9 million. In total, $310 million has been allocated to the sector.

Submitted by Danielle Heppell
Submitted by Danielle Heppell

Although the budget for school bus services has grown, there needs to be a greater incentive for people to apply and be retained as bus drivers, Critch said.

"It's a tough job and school districts pay as low as $16.50 an hour. It's not nearly enough for what needs to be done and the importance of the job," he said.

Critch and other industry stakeholders sat on a task force that reviewed student transportation and made more than 20 recommendations to Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange in November 2020.

One of the group's recommendations was temporarily modifying or relaxing mandatory entry-level training requirements — training requirements, introduced in 2019, that school divisions consider a major barrier to hiring new drivers.

The task force also suggested Alberta Education work with other ministries on driver recruitment strategies and ensure its funding model was fair and sustainable.

There "are no quick solutions" to the driver shortage, Alberta's ministries of education and transportation said in a joint emailed statement to CBC.

"Alberta Education continues to monitor the situation closely and has been in regular contact with school authorities and school bus contractors about their recruiting challenges. We understand how this issue is impacting families," the statement read.

Critch said he's thankful for the increased funding but it will take time for the supply of new drivers to catch up to the ongoing demand and it's taking a toll.

"We have hundreds of buses daily that are late for school," he said. "If you have 50 kids on a bus and they're 30 minutes late, that's 1,500 minutes of instructional time lost."

Heppell said it's frustrating that her daughter is unable to attend a school that best suits her needs

"She hates school now," Heppell said. "Every day is the biggest challenge to get her dressed. She's saying now, 'No school, no school, stay home.'"